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As horrific as yesterday’s crash at an air race event in Reno was, some witnesses say it could have been far worse if not for last-second maneuvers by the veteran pilot. “If he wouldn’t have pulled up, he would have taken out the entire bleacher section,” one dad there with his two daughters tells AP. “I think he was trying to do whatever he could right up to the end,” another tells CNN. “I thought he was coming in on top of us. Instead, he missed us by about 100 feet and went out into the box area in front of us.” As of this morning, three people were dead, including 74-year-old pilot Jimmy Leeward of Ocala, Fla. Early speculation is centering on mechanical failure.

In a profile, the Los Angeles Times notes that Leeward—a real estate developer by trade—was a legend in the plane racing circuit and owned his own race team. He “barreled through the skies in more than 120 competitions, and worked as a stunt pilot in several films. He was brawny and handsome; only some salt and peppering on his temples gave a hint of his 74 years.” His Facebook page is collecting tributes, though the Times notes that some were questioning whether Leeward was too old for the circuit: “What the hell was he doing up there over a public venue?”